West Side Story

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

ALTHOUGH there are still those who moan about the few fully-staged opera productions in Edinburgh Festival programmes by comparison with earlier years, for a long time concert performances of operas have shown themselves to be much more than a way to make up that deficit – as this year’s culmination of Wagner’s Ring Cycle being one the fastest-selling tickets proves.

The success of that format was extended with this very fine West Side Story, a coda to the feast of Leonard Bernstein in his centenary year and a happy result of the lifting of restrictions on how the musical that set the story of Romeo and Juliet in the teenage gangs of 1950s New York can be performed. Pre-performance attention understandably focused on the unlikely combination of early music specialist Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing this music, but immediate credit should go to director Stephen Whitson and his “movement associate” Ste Clough for the way they used the concert hall as the canvas for the story, their energetic young cast spilling into the stalls and organ gallery as well as using every space around and among the orchestra.

With the music always stage centre, the opposition of the Sharks and the Jets and their female friends was constantly apparent, in ensemble numbers like Mambo and America as much as during the fatal Rumble. If the crucial elements of the story were lucidly present – and rarely is it as clear that the Shakespeare source is a comedy that goes wrong, rather than a fully-fledged tragedy – the music was always the main focus. It has never been so clear just how brilliantly Bernstein’s score re-uses the same simple material in altered ways as events unfold, simple phrases reappearing in different well-known tunes. Not only was Gardiner clearly enjoying this hip-swinging music – even taking a cameo role in policeman’s cap as Officer Krupke before a superb version of that number – but the orchestra, augmented with jazz big band ingredients and some very busy percussionists, played an absolute blinder.

In what was a very compressed rehearsal time, the vocal and acting performances were also remarkable, fine young singers from the National Youth Choir of Scotland part of an international ensemble, with Sophia Burgos as Maria beyond praise. The conversational way she began I Feel Pretty, for example, was a wonder.

A less-than-successful attempt to give Somewhere a more universal meaning, and some edits to the score, which made the ending seem oddly abrupt, meant the evening fell short of perfection, but it was nonetheless a quite unforgettable experience.